The other day Relevant Magazine1 posted a brief story slice on an elementary school that got into a good deal of trouble for sending 5th graders home with a pamphlet on how to deal with bullies. It contained what is probably some of the absolute worst advice you could ever give a kid who is being bullied. For instance, one of the “helpful tips” that the pamphlet gave to students was…

Do not tell on bullies: The number one reason bullies hate their victims is because the victims tell on them. Telling makes the bully want to retaliate. Tell an adult only when a real injury or crime (theft of something valuable) has occurred. Would we keep our friends if we tattled on them?

The thing that really upsets me about this is that it naturally assumes that part of the fault lies with the bullied kid. That’s what you get when you tattle on people, right?

Anyhow, this reminds me of a wonderful story that you’ve probably never heard before.  In John 4:7-30, we find this story where Jesus is walking through Samaria with his disciples. They eventually stop at a well just outside of one of the Samaritan villages and Jesus tells his boys, “I’mma chill here.  Go into town and see if you can snag us some butter beers and pumpkin pasties.” And while Jesus is just hanging out next to the well a woman comes along to draw water.

Now Jesus, wanting to wet his whistle, asks the woman for some water. This surprises the woman. Why, you ask? Well because of who she was… a Samaritan.

You see, several centuries before Jesus, the Israelites went into exile under foreign enemies,2 and out of all that craziness came a people group who were of mixed heritage, part Israelite and part… well, not Israelite.  These people are what we now know of as Samaritans, and because the Jewish people were kind of particular about not mixing with pagans, the Samaritans were viewed as half-breeds.  In the magical community, I believe they are sometimes called “mudbloods.”

Now, as edgy as it is of Jesus (a man) to be striking up a conversation with this woman (a woman) without a chaperone present, what is more is that this woman comes from a rather shady pedigree.  Last of all, as the conversation progresses, it turns out that this woman has been married at least five different times.  To make matters worse, the man that she was shacking up with at the time wasn’t even her husband!  Jesus points this out without her even mentioning it, which helps prompt her to recognize him as the Messiah and go running into town telling folks, “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?”

And this, my friends, is where people’s interpretation of this story usually goes terribly wrong.  You see, the way it’s normally told from the pulpit is something like this – “Jesus caught this woman living in sin.  But once he pointed her sin out to her, she couldn’t help but acknowledge his lordship.  Similarly, in order for the rest of us to come to an understanding of Jesus’ lordship, we need to be confronted by our own sins.”  And this only serves to lend ammunition to that incredibly prevalent, but incredibly ineffective, form of evangelism where you begin by telling people how sinful they are, and then try to sell them some Jesus at the end.

But, this completely misses what is going on in this story!  One crucial piece of information that we have to remember is that under Jewish (and therefore Samaritan) law, women could not initiate divorces.  Deuteronomy 24:1-4 gives clear instructions on how a man can divorce his wife if “he has found some indecency in her,” but nowhere is a woman ever given the option of divorcing her husband.  Whereas according to some rabbinic traditions a man could divorce his wife for something as small as burning his dinner, Semitic women were pretty much stuck with whomever they married (a.k.a., whoever paid the bride price to buy them from their fathers).  When we understand this very important part of Jewish law, it fundamentally changes the story of Jesus and the supposed half-breed harlot.  No longer is this a story of Jesus catching a licentious tart in her sin.  Now, this is a story of Jesus acknowledging the emotional scars of a poor woman who has been passed along by one man after another, each time being told in no uncertain terms that there was something indecent about her.

Jesus isn’t saying, “Quit with your promiscuous ways, you dirty tramp!”

Jesus is saying, “You’ve been used and abandoned five different times, haven’t you?  And the man you’re with now won’t even give you the honor of a proper marriage.  I’ll bet you don’t even think you deserve one anymore.”

This isn’t a story of conviction (and certainly not condemnation).  This is a story of how a well-regarded, pureblood Jewish rabbi gave value and worth to a marginalized, mudblood girl who had experienced a life of rejection.3  But last of all, and most importantly for us as interpreters, this is a prime example of how we so often turn victims into villains.  Where did we first get the notion that this woman was willingly hopping from one man to another?  There’s actually nothing in the story itself that requires this interpretation.  But this is the sort of vilification that is going on every time someone says, “If he doesn’t like being homeless, he should just go get a job.”  Or, “Of course she was bullied. That’s what you get when you tattle on people.”  In fact, when we incriminate the woman at the well for having multiple husbands, to me it sounds eerily similar to blaming rape victims – “She brought it on herself.  I mean, look at how she dresses.”

So think about this next time you feel the impulse to judge someone whose lifestyle or decisions you disagree with.  It may very well be the case that they really are victims of life’s hardships.  And responding to them like Jesus doesn’t mean pointing out their sins to them.  Rather, it means acknowledging their pains and scars, and then offering them a drink of life.

1: which is actually one of like three places where I get my news (the other two being Facebook and Twitter). If it's not important enough to come across social media, it's probably not worth my attention... right?

2: Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians… folks like that.

3: Many commentators have pointed out that it is perhaps no coincidence that the woman comes to the well during the hottest time of the day instead of in the evening or early morning when the other women of the village would have gone to draw water. Often it is said that she wanted to avoid their accusing glances, but I wonder if perhaps she was tired of their awkward patronizing, “bless her heart,” type of comments.

| Scripture | 4 comments so far

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Rocky Munoz
Jesus-follower, husband, daddy, amateur theologian, former youth pastor, nerd, and coffee snob. Feel free to email me at almostheresy@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter (@rockstarmunoz)

4 Comments

  1. Hannah, April 30, 2014 at 1:56 pm:

    Fantastic post, Rocky. What an interesting/inspiring way to look at this story in the Bible . . . beautiful.

    • Rocky Munoz, April 30, 2014 at 4:28 pm:

      Thanks, Hannah! I am so glad you found it so meaningful :)

  2. Ethel Blackwood, May 2, 2014 at 8:03 am:

    Excellent point Rocky. The women of the Bible aren’t always understood because we place the practices of our culture on them rather than researching and recognizing their place in a male dominated culture. The women of the middle east face this daily.

    • Rocky Munoz, May 2, 2014 at 6:16 pm:

      Thanks, Ethel! You are right about women in the Middle East (and elsewhere in the world). I think that Christians ought to be at the forefront of movements for women’s rights everywhere.


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